Supreme Court Backs Qualified Immunity, Protecting Police Officers From Lawsuits

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Damir Mujezinovic

In May 2020, after police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes and killed him, protests against police brutality erupted in cities across the Untied States.

Black Lives Matter activists and other groups took to the streets to protest the killing and call for police reform, destroying both public and private property in the process.

But the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a major blow to police reform activists on Monday, granting qualified immunity in two cases.

Read more below.

California Case

The Supreme Court granted qualified immunity for a California police officer named Daniel Rivas-Villegas, as reported by Business Insider.

Rivas-Villegas was accused of using excessive force and violating the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by kneeling on a suspect's back while handcuffing him on the ground.

Initially, a lower court denied Rivas-Villegas' request for qualified immunity, but the Supreme Court reversed that ruling, saying that the suspect needs to show that the police officer violated "clearly established law" in order to sue him.

Oklahoma Case

The Supreme Court overturned a similar lower court decision in the state of Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma case involved a 2016 incident in which police shot and killed Dominic Rollice.

Rollice visited ex-wife's home, intoxicated, and refused to leave. The woman called 911, and police arrived at the scene. Rollice then grabbed a hammer and turned to the officers, who allegedly ordered him to put it down.

When he refused to do so, police shot and killed him.

Rollice's estate sued the cops, but a district judge ruled in their favor. A federal appeals court reversed that the decision, and on Monday the Supreme Court reversed the appeals court's decision, granting qualified immunity to officers involved in Rollice's death.

Qualified Immunity

The Supreme Court's decisions were described as a "major blow" to police reform by the libertarian-leaning Reason magazine.

"What these two decisions illustrate is that the Supreme Court—despite its decisions last term in Taylor v. Riojas and McCoy v. Alamu -- does not seem interested in making any fundamental alterations to the doctrine of qualified immunity," research fellow with the Cato Institute's Project on Criminal Justice Jay Schweikert told Reason.

"To the contrary, both these decisions clearly reinforce the idea that overcoming qualified immunity generally requires a prior case with nearly identical facts," he said.

Defund The Police

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After the murder of George Floyd, police reform activists and some progressive Democrats argued that police departments across the country need to be defunded.

Polls suggest that defunding the police is extremely unpopular, however.

In a USA Today/Ipsos poll released earlier this year, for instance, just 18 percent of respondents said they support the "defund the police" movement.

Sixty-seven percent of white Americans and 84 percent of Republicans said they oppose defunding the police. Twenty-eight percent of Black Americans and 34 percent of Democrats said they back the controversial movement.